Curiosity Empowered the Cat: Science is For Everyone
Throughout my childhood, much like everyone else’s childhood, I was an observer, an explorer, a sponge soaking up every phenomenon I saw and subconsciously piecing it all together to make sense of the world around me. I was fortunate to have patient parents and lots of older siblings who would stop and share their knowledge with me when I couldn’t figure something out for myself and asked, “How does it work?” or “Why does that happen?” I was also allowed to play – with kitchen utensils and ingredients, with dirt and grass and mud and sticks, with scissors and paper and glue, fabric and needles and thread, with the trampoline and my bike, with my imagination and common sense.
Those formative years set me up with the ability to observe, question, hypothesise, and test: the basis of the scientific method. These are skills that everyone is capable of – I’ve worked with Prep students who innately followed this logical process (not in a particularly sophisticated manner, but used it without guidance nonetheless!), and I would suggest everyone needs some level of ability in these skills order to navigate daily life as successfully as possible.
For this reason, I posit that education is the most valuable commodity in which anyone, or any government, can invest. Well-educated people are those who have been given an opportunity to develop the tools necessary for assessing what is and is not reasonable, and have taken that opportunity. They are not necessarily the highest earners, but they are certainly the smartest spenders because they won’t go wasting money on “alt med” consults with no proven results, etc — to quote Tim Minchin’s Storm: “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine!” – but I digress… Central to those tools is the application of logical and critical thinking, borne from the basic teachings of science, which enables the student (read: humanity) to make choices that are well-informed and therefore most likely to have positive, successful outcomes.
The decisions I speak of include:
- what to eat (nutrition, dieting, metabolism, sustainable farming),
- how to travel (sustainable fuel sources, environmental impact of highway design),
- how to build/retrofit a house to be eco-friendly (smart electricity monitors, renewable timber sources, recycled materials and insulation),
- how best to thwart cancer (emerging T cell therapy, chemotherapy, the impact of smoking and genetics),
- where to plant a vegie patch (sun/shade preferences, soil quality), and
- how much sun is enough without being too much (skin cancer risk versus vitamin D deficiency).
These are but a few of the likely situations that Australians find themselves in at some point in their life, and will need to navigate relying on the scientific education they received during their compulsory schooling years.
One look at your Facebook newsfeed and it’s sadly apparent that not everyone can spot misinformation when they see it. It’s far too easy to accept things at face value and “share” them with your circle when there is a button designed for that very purpose. I’m sure we’ve all seen a friend share a picture or post that makes a “dubious-at-best” claim, if not “downright misleading” or even “plain wrong”. How can we gently point out the red flags we are able to see in such posts, without immediately putting the other party on the defensive by seeming holier-than-thou and arrogant? When you figure out how, please do let me know! This brings me to a question I wrestle with far too often – why doesn’t everyone see the red flags?
I’ve narrowed it down to two key things: 1) the encouragement I received to gain and further my scientific literacy, and more specifically, as a result of that, 2) critical thinking skills.
The fundamentals of the scientific method are an essential addition to the basic literacy standards of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Having a sound understanding of how the world works, and how to tell if something isn’t working as it should, is based upon a framework of questioning when, where, who, what, and most importantly, why and how? Imagine if everyone asked themselves those questions before sharing a post about how “onions are a natural cancer killer, so eat onions and you won’t get cancer”. Engaging the natural curiosity of childhood and adolescence during the compulsory schooling years could have massive impact if it were harnessed and steered toward appreciating (and questioning!) cause and effect. Imagine the better health outcomes possible in terms of obesity and diabetes, skin and lung cancer, and communicable diseases (STIs and immunisation preventable diseases, in particular) – the list is almost endless because education is so powerful.
Science and technology have already given so much to society, and yet poor decisions are still being made. Red flags are still going unseen. Misinformation is still being spread. Why? If we can create an education system where scientific principles are taught in the context of everyday situations (please refer to above list of everyday situations where scientific literacy and critical thinking is required/useful), perhaps more people would see that science is very much a part of everyday life, and so may be more conscious of their decisions, and think more critically.
A sentiment I hear all too often is that “You have to be super smart to do science – so I can’t do it”; this leads to a disconnection before the content has even been approached. In reality, students are more than capable of understanding the concepts if taught in an engaging context. My long term career ambition is to promote that “Science is for everyone”, and while I understand that not everyone will become a fully-fledged research scientist like me, I know that being taught how to think (scientific method/reasoning and critical thinking) is a far more beneficial tool than being taught what to think, when navigating the barrage of claims presented to us daily.
By completing a PhD in retinal degeneration, then securing a research position with a teaching load, I plan to mentor research higher degree students and inspire undergraduates and visiting school groups to be passionate about their innate curiosity. Not to become a scientist, per se, but to be well enough equipped with necessary skills to identify when they are being sold a lie, and encourage them to look deeper into the beauty of whatever it is that fascinates them.
On a more abstract scale, I hope in some small way to make the world a better place by encouraging future generations to question why the world is in its current state and think of how we can go about improving it. The most effective way to do that is through encouraging curiosity, scientific literacy, and critical thinking within our education system.
[Header Image: Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by epsos.]